Thursday, December 13, 2007

They finally got it!

It pains me to say this, but it appears that under the stewardship of Billy Payne, Chairman of the Masters Tournament and Augusta National Golf Club, the good ole boys just might leapfrog the USGA blowhards in bringing the game into the 21st century.

Sure they’re still stuffed shirts, but they just may get it—that golf is not in good shape and they’re willing to do something about it.

On Dec. 6, Payne announced the beginning of a long-term plan to use the Masters brand to expand the game of golf on an international basis. The first move is that beginning in 2008 every accredited patron (I hate that reference) can bring a child age 8 to 16 with them on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday free of charge. It’s a simple idea, but brilliant at the same time.

Think of it. Now Mom and Dad can share the experience of watching the greatest tournament in golf with the kids without having a remote in their hands. They’ll see the beauty first hand; experience the sounds and smells together. I daresay after four days of walking Augusta two things will happen to those kids. First, they’ll be tired because of an endless range of some of the steepest hills in golf (the 18th has to be seen in person to be believed). Second, you’ll have kids that will just have to try to play golf. All the cartoon messages and TV commercials in the world urging kids to play golf couldn’t compare to the effect of the opportunity Augusta National has presented.

Payne then backed up this landmark plan with another.

One of the traditions of the Masters has always been the Wednesday Par 3 Tournament. Everyone has heard about it—how the winner never wins the real deal (he never has). Yes, everyone has heard about it, but few have ever seen it. This year the Masters is opening another door and will allow ESPN to broadcast it.

Payne was quoted as saying “You don’t have to be an avid golfer to root for a hole-in-one.” He’s right, but just about anyone can get into watching players having their kids caddie for them and having fun joking around with the fans (sorry—patrons). If it looks like fun instead of a pressure-packed death march, there are probably a few couch potatoes who might get their butts to a golf course to see what it’s like.

The cynic in me says that they’re just trying to burn extra cash that’s endangering their non-profit status. That may very well be true, but at least they’re using their power to promote the game in very real ways. Regardless of their possible ulterior motive, I applaud their initial steps in giving back to the game.

From time to time, Augusta National and the USGA have seemed to be interchangeable, but the Georgia gang has separated themselves now. The USGA is left to suffer through the throes of misery of the Donald Driver reign. He has certainly left his mark on golf’s governing body in the U.S. Some would call it a scar.

The USGA has been teetering on the edge of losing their non-prof status as well. They have too much money. Instead of spending wisely, Driver started his own inquisition all but eliminating certain departments in the organization. Cutting overhead coupled with a little accounting hocus – pocus and the bottom line is served. Of course he sank the morale in Far Hills deeper than the Titanic. The Titanic was raised. Who knows about the USGA’s morale?

As I just read over the above paragraphs, I had a spasmodic shiver. You know the kind you have when you swallow something that tastes absolutely vile. After all these years, it’s happened. I’m applauding the people who run the Masters—and not just with one hand. YECCH!

I’ve got to right this ship. Okay, one semi-quick story.

It was 1983 and my first Masters. I was writing for the Boston Herald and I was to focus on an amateur named Jim Hallet from Cape Cod who qualified from the 1982 U.S. Amateur. 1983 was also the first year players could bring their own caddies and didn't have to use Augusta National caddies.

Well, the Boston Herald was a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid at the time and the more controversial the story, the better the editors liked it.

It occurred to me that a story about the first white caddie in the Masters might have merit. As luck would have it, the first non-Augusta National caddie to sign in was Jack Tosone, Hallet’s caddie ands also from Cape Cod. I had a double-edge story. It was controversial with a local angle.

I wrote the story for Wednesday’s paper and they put it on the back page (just below the Red Sox story of course). I thought nothing of it and went on with my week.

As I was entering the media center Friday morning, an older gent wearing the club’s green jacket and white bucket hat with the Masters logo stopped me. “Are you Jack O'Leary, the writer from Boston?” he demanded.

I told him I was. He then vociferously questioned my news judgment. “Did you write that story about the caddie? And do you REALLY think that was a newsworthy event?” he said with a rising voice and poking his bony finger into my chest.

I assured him that I had too much respect for newspaper space to ruin it with a non-story. He then rustled up all the righteous indignity he could muster. “You will leave the running of Augusta National to Augusta National, sir!” he stammered and strutted off probably to jump into a bourbon and branch water.

I was later apprised that in the not too distant past, a special member committee would go to where I was staying, pack up my things, arrange for a limo and change my flight itinerary to return to Boston that day. I escaped that, but I had experienced the well-known wrath of Augusta National. It’s a different place. I’m glad to see a gentler humble side as expressed on Dec. 6th.

Here’s the curse of age. Just when being a kid could get me into the Masters, I look like one of those USGA old farts—complete with the dandruff on the shoulders of my blue blazer. Unfair I say!

Bartender! Another bourbon and branch water if you please and let’s raised a glass to the kinder, gentler and dare I say avant garde membership of Augusta National. Well done!

See you on the first tee,


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